Charles Altamont Doyle, Fairy folk celebrating around a plough
Our conventional view of the faeries is of a people of wild or wooded places whose life is one long round of leisure and pleasure- dancing, feasting and the like. At the same time, we don’t tend to imagine them having any concerns with bread-winning or the means of production- indeed, a strong antipathy for such occupations has often been imagined. There’s a widespread rhyme in Scotland to the effect that:
Where the scythe cuts and the sock (plough) rives,/ Hae done wi’ fairies and bee-bykes.”
This gloomy view is mistaken. To begin with, a moment’s reflection will remind us of the farm labouring brownies, for example, and when the sources are examined, consistent fairy links to agriculture are revealed- as are their interests in manufacture, mining, cloth-making, building and the like. The fairy economy is as complex as our own.
Fairies are often believed to rely solely upon stolen dairy products and corn, preying on them “as do Crowes and Mice” as Robert Kirk put it (Secret Commonwealth c.1). In fact, they have been observed actively involving themselves in all aspects of farming. As I’ve discussed before, they have their own goats and other livestock. These are distinctly different from humans’ beasts, although the faeries may also acquire ours, sometimes by surreptitiously luring them away and sometimes slightly more honestly. In the book A pleasant treatise of witches, the author recounted a story he had heard of a pregnant sow that was fed daily by the fairies with bread and milk. When farrowing time came, they clearly felt they were entitled to the fruit of their investment in the pig: they took all the piglets but left their value in silver behind. This wasn’t theft, but it wasn’t a normal purchase either and, as such, is the epitome of Faery. It’s non-consensual for the human farmer, it asserts a presumed right over our goods and, yet, there is something in exchange.
We know too from the reports of visitors that the fays have their own fields and orchards in fairyland underground, but most witnesses of course don’t see them there. The Reverend Kirk believed that our landscape here and there showed the marks of the fairies’ cultivation from a time that preceded the country’s occupation by humankind:
“Albeit, when severall Countreys were uninhabited by us, these had their easy Tillage above Ground, as we now. The Print of those Furrows do yet remaine to be seen on the Shoulders of very high Hills, which was done when champayn Ground was Wood and Forrest.” (chapter 2)
The fairies have since retreated to their subterranean realms which means that, usually, the fays are only to be encountered participating in human farming activities. In fact, they have shown an interest in our pastoral and dairy production, in fruit growing, in horticulture and in the cultivation of grain crops.
Charles Altamont Doyle, God speed the plough
Fairies in the corn fields
It’s often reported that the fairies bake their own bread- bread of superlative flavour- and of course the grain for that has to come from somewhere. It’s not all stolen, by any means, although there are plenty of stories from across England of fairies filching corn, grain by grain, from granaries, whilst on the island of Islay it’s said that the local fairies claim the top grain from every stalk- and will have harvested it in well before the farmer enters the field with his scythes.
Some fairies seem to play some sort of protective role towards human cultivation, being almost like minor agricultural deities. Across England, for example, there’s a host of sprites whose sole function seems to be guarding orchards, fruit bushes and nut groves from the depredations of thieves and children. From Scotland, we have the curious tale of ‘Jeanie’s Granny.’ When she was a child, Jeanie’s grandmother got up one night to steal some newly harvested grain so as to feed her horse. When she got to the fields, she saw a tiny woman hopping from stook to stook; the child became scared and ran home without stealing any corn. In another story from Dartmoor, a man was annoyed to find that all his stooks of harvested corn were disturbed over night. He decided to watch the following night to see what the cause might be and , just as he had suspected, pixies appeared and began to pull all the stooks into one corner of the field. Very possibly this was being done by them as the first age of building a rick, but the pixies were too small to make a good job of it and the farmer interrupted them- at which point they vanished. (They might alternatively have been preparing to steal the crop, which would have been much more in character: in a story from Ardnamurchan in the Highlands, a man outwitted the fairies who’d been reaping his crop at night by leaving a wise old man in the field. When fairies appeared and started to harvest the grain, he then counted their number out loud and by this simple means banished them forever.)
We also come across lots of fairies working in gardens and vegetable patches. These are the beings often described as gnomes and it seems that their dedication to plant life is so great that they will cultivate human plots merely for the satisfaction of seeing healthy fruit and vegetables. The most curious story comes from West Yorkshire from about 1850. A man called Henry Roundell of Washburn Dale near Harrogate got up early to hoe the weeds in his crop of turnips. When he reached his field, he was astonished to discover every row being hoed by a host of tiny men in green, all of them singing shrilly. As soon as he entered the field, they fled like scattered birds.
Charles Altamont Doyle, A scarecrow
There’s a definite close association between fairies and cattle- and that may not be just because they want to consume their milk and cream. For example, William Bottrell recounts the story of Rosy, the fine red milk cow of the Pendar family of Baranhual farm in Penwith. She gave twice the milk of the other cows, but would often disappear from the farm in the evenings. Eventually, Molly the milkmaid discovered the reason: a four-leaf clover was included in the pad of herbs she used to carry the milk pail on her head and it enabled her to see that the cow was surrounded by dancing fairies, who were taking turns to milk her and stroking and tickling the beast in between. The cow was evidently very happy in their company. The farmer’s wife decided to wash the cow’s udders in brine to terminate the fairy thefts, but the only result was that Rosy ceased to give any milk at all.
A related account from Sutherland in the far north of Scotland is the reminiscence of an old woman who, as a small girl, had gone out with her mother one summer evening to tend the cows in the field. She was able to see small green people playing near the cattle, although her mother saw nothing (G. Sutherland, Folklore gleanings, p.22). As stated at the start, there’s a definite affinity between the little people and cows which benefits the milk yield.
The classic farming fairy is the domestic brownie, who will undertake all the tasks necessary to run a human smallholding. He’ll tend the cattle and sheep, milk the cows, reap the crops, thresh the grain and involve himself in all other aspects of processing the produce of the farm. Brownies help out on a permanent basis with farming tasks, but other fairy types can be recruited to provide ‘temporary labour’ in times of need. From North-East Scotland there’s the story of the ‘Red Cappies’ who were called on to assist with threshing grain. Generally across the Highlands you’ll find the Gaelic tradition of the ceaird-chomuinn (‘association craft’) whereby people can be endowed with particular skills by the faes, such as the ability to undertake prodigious feats of ploughing, sowing and harrowing.
Over and above the familiar English brownie and Lowland Scottish broonie, there’s a host of other (Highland) Scottish beings with particular farming connections who are also worth examining:
- gruagach- this being looks after the cattle of a farm or a village, for which duties she receives a daily bowl of whey or a regular offering of milk poured out over a holed stone or special slab of rock. She has long golden hair and is dressed in green. She sings to the cattle and keeps them safe from all disease or accident. She is very strong and in one story a gruagach killed itself through overwork, trying to thrash an entire barn full of corn in one night. Like many of her kind, if she’s offered clothes she’ll desert a farm and if her regular helping of milk is forgotten, she’ll wreak havoc, turning the cows into the crops and such like;
- glaistig- this being is often portrayed as a violent hag, but her more benign aspect is as a dairy maid and cow-herd, seldom being seen but using her powerful voice to keep the cattle in check. She’s said to be a human woman who’s been placed under a fairy enchantment and thereby has acquired a fairy nature. For this reason, the glaistig can sometimes shape-shift into the form of a dog to better herd and protect the livestock. She lives on farms but is a solitary being. She expects a pail of milk nightly and will react angrily if this is withheld or forgotten. In some places milk is also offered at other important points in the farming year, such as when the cattle are first left out overnight each year and when they are brought inside for winter;
- urisk- a brownie-like spirit who lives in wild places but who will undertake farm chores in return for a bowl of cream. He is very strong and clever and can be savage if provoked. The urisk is said to be half-human and half-fay;
- King Broonie- on Orkney, a type of trow that particularly took care of a farm’s corn. He objected to being watched and, if he felt that he was being spied upon, would scatter the ricks;
- hogboon- a Shetland version of the brownie who undertakes agricultural labouring tasks in return for food. The name derives from the Norse haug bui, meaning mound-dweller, because they were believed to inhabit the ancient burial mounds;
- gunna– is another sort of brownie who cares for cattle and keeps them away from cliffs and out of the fields of growing crops. He is very thin, with long yellow hair, and is dressed only in a fox skin; and,
- bodachan sabhaill (the little old man of the barn) is a spirit who will help older farmers with their threshing.
What I think is particularly striking about this group of beings is how many of them are semi-wild sprites, often with a parallel reputation for violent acts, and yet they’re entrusted with a farm’s valuable assets. Of course, the farmers don’t recruit them: the faery cowherds are generally inherited or volunteer themselves, but it is nonetheless a curious relationship. The spirit of the wilderness accommodates itself to the human subjugation of the landscape.
Charles Altamont Doyle, Eavesdroppers
In conclusion, although our tendency is to imagine carefree and pleasure loving fairies, the reality is often more complex. They grow their own food, like any community must, and many are very hard working- even on behalf of human kind and in return for quite informal arrangements as to recompense.
For more detail on this subject, see my book How Things Work in Faery (2021).